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Judith (Perelman) Rossner 1935–
Rossner is best known for Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1975), a novel typical of Rossner's work in its contemporary setting, its interest in human motivations and conflicts, and its narration from a woman's viewpoint. The book was adapted for film in 1977.
Rossner's settings and themes depict various aspects of contemporary urban America. Any Minute Now I Can Split (1972) takes place in a commune, Goodbar concerns the world of singles bars, and much of August (1983) is set in a psychoanalyst's office. Her fiction examines such topical issues as the sexual revolution and the women's movement. This is true even of Emmeline (1980), an unusual Rossner work in that it is set in the nineteenth century. This novel echoes a concern of Rossner's that was especially prominent in Goodbar—that sexual passion often leads to disaster for women. Although Rossner's novels present a distinctly female consciousness, her heroines are passive and do not display the assertiveness of model feminists.
In most Rossner novels, the central character faces a conflict between opposing inner forces, and the structure of the novels echoes these dualities. In To the Precipice (1966), the protagonist attempts to choose between a man who satisfies her altruistic nature, on the one hand, and one who indulges her selfish needs, on the other. Theresa, in Goodbar, has two very distinct personalities. By day she is a loving schoolteacher; at night she frequents singles bars in search of sexual fulfillment. Attachments (1977), the story of the wives of Siamese twins, concerns the conflict between the need for individuality and the comfort and identity which comes from being "attached" to another person. Rossner's continuing concern with human psychology is made explicit in August, which gives a detailed account of one woman's psychoanalysis and the effect it has on the analyst.
(See also CLC, Vols. 6, 9; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6.)
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Rossner's theme [in Emmeline], as in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, is that sex has a chaotic potential that goes well beyond the individual's control. Sex—whether prompted by desire or a variety of other nonsexual needs such as the need for affection—can blind, overwhelm, even destroy an otherwise ordinary orderly life, and Rossner wants a slow scrutiny of just how this comes to pass: how does it happen that a God-fearing Bible-toting 13-year-old in Puritan New England would consent to sexual relations at all, much less with an older married man? How does it happen that Stephen Maguire, a decent man as Rossner characterizes him, would allow himself to have adulterous sex with a child? And how does it happen that a woman could later marry her own son?In search of answers to the first two questions, Rossner evidently immersed herself in Lowell's history, including facts about wages, working hours, living accommodations, and job descriptions of the young women who came to work in the mills…. [But] a political consciousness about labor history is neither Rossner's interest nor her strong point. Much of the information, not successfully kneaded into the narrative, could have been omitted.
More interesting is the narrative voice Rossner adopts to probe Emmeline's and Maguire's motivations. Not so much sentence by sentence as cumulatively, it is flat, haunting, and intentionally naive, the verbal equivalent of Grandma Moses's paintings. Through it, Rossner depicts Emmeline as lonely and homesick; she suggests that in Maguire, Emmeline found someone who was warm and kind; so needy was she that, aside from the initial pain, she barely noticed that he was having intercourse with her, and anyhow barely knew what intercourse was. What she drew from it was his warmth…. Though the voice kept me listening, ultimately I just didn't believe it. How could Emmeline be quite so oblivious about sex? How could she be so unaffected by an impassioned man on top of her?
As for the inadvertent incestuous marriage, Rossner has only a cosmic explanation: "Feelings so powerful that they could have come only from God lead some to those acts most strongly condemned by his word." It's hard to know whether this theological rationale is Rossner's or one she imagines to be apt for the time, but in either case, it's too flimsy to bear the weight of the events it's asked to.
Nevertheless, the naive narrative voice often works well: it allows Rossner to develop an increasing aura of a peculiarly pleasurable dread—especially when, with flawless pacing, the narration reveals bits of information with no acknowledgment of their implications. (pp. 17-18)
Rossner's sensibility is essentially tragic: the world is one of decent people, good and helpful as far as their human will can stretch, but beyond that, menaced by a sexual destiny that comes from within them and beyond them, annihilating the possibility of order and contentment. (p. 18)
Elizabeth Stone, "Two Novels, Classic Themes in Modern Drag: More Gothic Foreplay," in Ms. (© 1980 Ms. Magazine Corp.), Vol. IX, No. 3, September, 1980, pp. 17-18.
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In Emmeline, Judith Rossner has taken on a plot of high improbable melodrama and come so close to making it believable that the part we cannot swallow scarcely bothers our enjoyment….
Of course, claiming an origin in fact does not excuse plots that creak or circumstances that collide with unlikely bangs. The weakest answer any novelist can ever give is that something was that way and therefore is so transcribed. Fictional truth is more shapely and more persuasive than reality. We know people more clearly, understand motives and see how events ramify, as we seldom can in real life. Only because Emmeline is well drawn and because we identify with her determination to survive difficulties and save her family, we are able to accept a story that is archaic and sensational.
Emmeline is a fully realized character in her naiveté, her courage, her failing piety, her stubborn will, her devotion to her mother and her desperate loneliness. Sent to the mill in Lowell to save her family from hunger, she is the sacrifice the family makes to survive….
Rossner is not sentimental about the past. Her 19th-century New England is as hard a place for women to thrive as her 20th-century New York, as in Looking for Mr. Goodbar….
It is a measure of how well Emmeline has been created that we believe she makes love without realizing what she is doing. Emmeline has been told nothing about sex and does not worry about being pregnant even after she is. I said to myself that Emmeline had grown up sleeping many people to a room and in a bed, on a farm where animal mating is not arcane knowledge. Nonetheless Rossner managed to convince me that not only was the inhibition on discussing sex powerful among women, but that Emmeline was the sort of person who could act without acknowledging to herself what she is doing….
[The] last sequence is a weak point in the novel, for the aunt plays fate a little too heavily. If I can go along with the denouement, it's because Rossner makes Emmeline so inward, so stubborn, so passionate with no outlets, that I can almost believe she can will back to her the child she gave up under protest and has always longed for.
Emmeline is a dark book, powerful, energetic and suspenseful. If Rossner believes that sexual passion destroys women, as she often seems to in her fictions, nonetheless she does not present an Emmeline destroyed. Given the confines of her class and the strict and narrow feminine roles of her time and place, Emmeline is strong. Even incest does not destroy her. When she tries suicide, she saves herself. It is incorrect to say that she experiences remorse but rather that she recognizes her complicity in the events of her life. She is one of the most deeply solitary female characters in recent fiction. (p. 3)
Mother-son incest is the rarest type in our society, where every person who works professionally with families has to deal with father-daughter incest, and where the older man-younger woman couple is considered normal and the older woman-younger man couple is viewed with suspicion. In spite of the rarity of mother-son incest or because of the depth of the taboo, it has a curious hold on the contemporary imagination, including at least two movies of recent years. Rossner deals with the myth by embedding it in vivid circumstantial reality, and by creating a character strong enough to lend integrity to the improbable. (p. 15)
Marge Piercy, "Sacrificed to the Mills of Fate," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), September 14, 1980, pp. 3, 15.
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If "Emmeline" is a novel it is Judith Rossner's sixth…. A prefatory note explains that the author heard about Emmeline from one Nettie Mitchell, 94, who knew her when "she herself was a child and Emmeline an old woman." Nettie herself might be a fictional device, but even if she is not, responsibility remains with the author to make the title character, her ordeal, relationships and milieu real. (p. 13)
It is often discourteous and unnecessary to reveal a novel's plot, but in this case unfortunately the crudeness of the plot cannot be ignored: it thoroughly undermines the book's literary character.
[After giving her baby up for adoption], Emmeline stays at home for many peaceful years, working hard while her parents age and her siblings grow up and get married. Finally, in the era of the Civil War, she abandons her resolution to remain single and permits herself to be wooed by a robust young road-builder who has wandered into town from out West. They marry, after overcoming opposition from Emmeline's father, and build a house across the road from the main Mosher property. Then the aunt, who for obscure reasons has never showed up since Emmeline returned home from Lynn, pays a visit and is introduced to her niece's new husband. A dreadful scene ensues. You've guessed it. The unlucky woman has married and bedded her own son.
There is more to tell of the heroine, as she suffers her pariah or taboo phase, but this can be left to the reader to discover. Instead it's necessary to note the sombre even lugubrious manner in which the story is told and to observe that the narrative crudely suppresses information and resorts to wild coincidence to entangle the lives of mother and son. (pp. 13, 46)
"Emmeline" is as dull as a tribal myth inculcating the advantages of exogamy over endogamy. Its authenticity is of a kind with the scandalous stories that have always circulated in that part of the rural Northeast that used to be called "the incest belt." But most lacking in "Emmeline" are the poise and shapely imaginative life of artistic prose fiction. (p. 46)
Julian Moynahan, "A Yankee Pamela," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 14, 1980, pp. 13, 46.
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It is strange, though not crucial, that the factual basis of Emmeline is indicated only in a tiny preface many readers may miss—strange because a myth-come-true (of this sort, anyway) has added punch and at the same time stills impertinent questions about coincidence. This is presumably one purpose of a publicity release to reviewers, which tells how Rossner came upon the story of Emmeline Mosher of Fayette, Maine, how details beyond bare bones were difficult to verify (church records were destroyed in a fire), how the imagination took over and the book was written. Perhaps I am too kind; but the impression persists (and intensifies my reading) that there really was an Emmeline Mosher to whom, in a harsh time and place, these terrible things happened—a son out of wedlock whom she later marries. Because, without that impression, it's all sort of flat. I shall explain.
There are, it is said, only a few great plots (though infinite variations); they deal with lust, ambition, greed, false gods, etc.—that is, excesses and taboos, crime and punishment. (A pessimistic view of what guides our souls, but there it is—why humor, perhaps, is the saving grace.) Among the taboos, none is more powerful than incest (sociobiologists, noting its universality, suggest a genetic proscription); and among possible incests, none is more horrifying than mother-son. I don't know why this is so—obvious sexism is involved (which may suggest another and less pleasant genetic factor)—but it is so. The myth of Phaeton is indistinct, but everybody knows what happened to Oedipus. Even, and especially, Emmeline.
But awareness of the taboo and conspiracy in its breaking are very different things, and this is where Emmeline goes astray. Oedipus was forewarned, which is why his story, though "fated," is a tragedy; it contains, however encoded and delimited, moral choice. But Emmeline has none. (Neither does Matthew.) It is made very clear that she is wholly innocent, that her fate is not only remote but impossible: She thinks her baby is a girl. (There is, modernly, a lesbian possibility, but this is low down in the taboo, and in any case has no bearing on Rossner's tale.) Matthew happens into town; the father's dislike is manufactured (cleverly) by Rossner, as is Emmeline's sense of dread. There is no way, had Emmeline confessed her sin to Matthew, that either of them could have guessed who was who.
Which is why, I think, neither Emmeline nor Matthew are interesting as characters. She's all good and victim wholly beyond her ken, he is merely the unwitting agent of her disaster. In terms of melodrama—what all myths are—incest doesn't really happen. What's operative is merely farfetched coincidence, the import of which rests entirely on the synapses of a tertiary character—who is not the kindly and lonely Mr. Maguire on whom Rossner expends so much understanding, but the Buttercup of the book (taboo plots that don't work out elicit those very saving graces, Gilbert & Sullivan), aunt Hannah.
It is invariably insulting and usually dumb for a reviewer to suggest that an author should have written a "different" book. The fat, after all, is in the fire; creation is creation, and commerce commerce. (Emmeline will sell and sell.) But I'll chance it. For Emmeline to be really grand and hurting, it should have been Hannah's story. Hannah alone has the clues to tragedy. She and only she has the potential of moral conflict. It is she who knows the sex of the baby and arranges its adoption. It is only she who can, with consequence, later ask—or not ask—Before Kansas? And after the asking, it is her life, not Emmeline's, that can rise and haunt. Rossner lets it go, and with it, in my view, a better book.
Of course, I'm putting a contemporary twinge of these affairs. It's plain from the publicity release that Rossner got caught up with what it was like for a 19th century farm girl to work in an industrial mill. A classical function of fiction is to tell us how it—real life—was and is, in ways other data cannot. Yet I think this focus, commendable as it still may be, is a result of confusion of another—what the horror of Emmeline really is, and to whom it belongs. No, I'm not saying that Oedipus Rex is really about the soothsayer. I'm saying that every great plot turns on awareness that can be perceived as having moral dimension, and that Emmeline's awareness does not have this dimension, and Hannah's does. And that Rossner, without apparent intention, ducked.
And with thematic consequences. For the rock-bottom theme of Emmeline is the same as that of Looking for Mr. Goodbar: That the yearn for love, and specifically sexual intercourse, can, for a woman, lead only to catastrophe. And it makes no difference if a woman seeks same (as in Mr. Goodbar) or doesn't (Emmeline): catastrophe is inevitable, and the only question is what form it will take, immediate mutilation or a slower, more torturous death. Although it's hidden in psychopathy (Mr. Goodbar) or innocence (Matthew), the corollary theme has to be that males, and especially their penises, are bad, and not merely bad, but lethal.
This, too, has its mythological dreamy (and maybe sociobiological) heritage. Think of snakes and horses (the incubus). But the real prick in Emmeline, the agent of destruction that should be subject to choice, is Hannah; or the rather too bland assumption (for a forceful fiction) that life is meaninglessly rough.
Emmeline will be read because of Mr. Goodbar's fame. It will be (not unjustly) admired for its sympathy, social history, and plotted portrait of a real-life/mythic victim. If there was an Emmeline Mosher, she certainly suffered greatly, and, as Judith Rossner, among many others, has amply proved, suffering can make a novel.
But I think a chance was missed, a plot made a fraud, and a theme reduced to essentials that are untrue—or, if true, inadequately explored. In the publicity release, Rossner speaks of goosebumps on hearing the story; in the book, it seems that Emmeline just got a lemon of a life.
Eliot Fremont-Smith, "Plot, Plot, Fizzle, Fizzle" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1980), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXV, No. 39, September 24-30, 1980, p. 39.
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Emmeline is a study in the psychology of victimization, and of survival. Circumstances thrust its heroine into the path of overwhelming historical, social and finally personal forces that thwart any attempt on her part to shape her own destiny. Yet she is never completely broken. Oddly self-contained and passive, more at home in the world of nature than in human society, Emmeline is shielded by an inviolable innocence from fully realizing the implications of her actions and experiences….
What is odd about Emmeline is that she has strong desires, yet she considers herself powerless. Her parents' decision to send her to Lowell is only the first of many times that others determine her fate. The coachman who brings her to Lowell decides where she will board; Mrs. Bass places her in a mill; Mr. Maguire decides to notice her; Mr. Whitehead (another supervisor) sends her to Lynn; her aunt finds foster parents for her baby. Except in the last case, she never protests—and even then she submits. As her life slips increasingly out of her control, she withdraws further and further from its surface incidents.
As a result, in some central core of her being she remains untouched by a profoundly shocking series of setbacks. For example, neither the social nor the physical consequences of her sexual liaison with Mr. Maguire seem to occur to her until they are forced on her attention. Imperturbably innocent, she never really feels that she has sinned, and we are inclined to agree with her….
[Emmeline] is studded with events that correspond not only to stages in Emmeline's sad career but to the social and economic development of New England.
Emmeline is often told things she does not understand or remember so that we will know them—a device that disrupts the narrative. Mr. Maguire's repeated attempts to explain himself as an Irishman among Yankees, for instance, has little meaning to a girl who has never heard of Ireland and lacks the imagination to perceive the cost at which he has achieved his powerful position….
Emmeline's vacuity reduces the novel's richness and complexity in other respects, too. It is written in the third person, but since Emmeline is its central consciousness as well as the main character, we are constantly in intimate contact with her sensibility. Unfortunately, she is not sufficiently interesting to sustain such intense exposure, and the story sometimes drags when recounting minor incidents that recapitulate Emmeline's rather restricted repertoire of responses. We learn more about Emmeline's life than we need to and less about its context than we would like.
In the last 30 pages, though, the plot takes a bizarre, staggeringly unlikely, yet gripping twist that involves an incestuous relationship between Emmeline and her long lost son. It is this small portion of the tale that has been played up in the book's pre-publication publicity. Rossner apparently does not share Aristotle's preference for invented but probable dramatic action over events that seem highly improbable even if they have actually occurred. She sticks to the particular historical truth, and Emmeline's conclusion is stunning. The rest of the novel, albeit moving, is too often crippled by the inadequacies of its heroine. (p. 18)
Harriet Ritvo, "New England Mill Girl," in The New Leader (© 1980 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LXIII, No. 18, October 6, 1980, pp. 17-18.
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Like Parisians, shrinks leave town in August. If they're New York shrinks, they flock to the Hamptons, where for one brief month no patients interrupt their lives. The patients, meanwhile, must fend for themselves. Along with the shorter breaks at Christmas and Easter, the recurrence of the August hiatus lends a rhythm to both sides of the psychoanalytic relationship. Enduring it or delighting in it, patient and analyst must somehow come to terms with August—the ritualized intrusion of time into the timeless world of the analytic session.
Judith Rossner's new novel takes its title and form from this fact of psychoanalytic sociology. Famous as a clinician of disordered minds—most memorably in "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" and "Emmeline"—Mrs. Rossner … turns her attention [in "August"] to the scene where disorders are supposed to get rectified. In meticulous detail, she narrates the five-year analysis of Dawn Henley by Dr. Lulu Shinefeld, the one a blond New England teen-ager, the other a fortyish Jewish Manhattanite. In the ordinary course of things, two such different women would never meet, but there's nothing ordinary about analysis, and as the two women grow and change, they make permanent marks on each other's lives. (p. 1)
"August" makes a promising start … and follows through scrupulously. Dawn, whose dependence upon Lulu is at first so great that she becomes deeply depressed at the mere thought of August, gradually comes under her own control….
"August" reeks of real life, at least as it's lived by certain people in a certain time and place. Though the writing is sparse almost to deprivation, it conveys a genuine feeling of East Hampton in August, the Upper West Side all year round and the manners and mores of those who shuttle between them. Most of the novel is dialogue, for which Mrs. Rossner can't be faulted. The give-and-take of real conversation, its hesitations, repetitions and Freudian slips—all are reproduced with exact fidelity. And, except for the slightly lurid features of Dawn's background, none of the characters' deeds deviates even slightly from the expected behavior of well-to-do urban people in the late 1970's.
The reader is warned in an Author's Note that "It would be useful to remember that the psychoanalysis that takes place within this novel bears approximately the resemblance to a real analysis that the novel bears to life." That resemblance has a Pre-Raphaelite quality: Primary attention is given to exacting detail and the composition of the whole is of less significance. Though there are condensations and summaries, Dawn's analysis is portrayed at greater length, and with greater faithfulness, than I've ever seen in a novel before…. The depiction of Dawn's analysis—meandering monologues from her, an occasional "Tell me" or "What do you mean?" from Lulu—is so eerily authentic that it seems not to be fiction at all. Mrs. Rossner has conveyed the exact feel of analysis—its tensions and relaxations, its insights achieved or evaded and also, at times, its longueurs.
"August" is absolutely true to its own design; it's a model of rigor and restraint, even when it must take risks. For example, we never see Dawn except in her sessions with Lulu; we see the characters who inhabit her life only as she describes them. They're interesting people—especially Vera and Tony—and one sometimes wishes that Dawn would shut up and let Mrs. Rossner tell us their stories. It's a sort of compliment to Mrs. Rossner's skill that she arouses such interest in characters who are never directly portrayed, yet I occasionally felt frustrated. Dawn's journey of self-discovery has considerable suspense of its own, but no 20-year-old, no matter how neurotic, can consistently reward such intense, sustained attention.
In Lulu's chapters, the risks and achievements are different. Here Mrs. Rossner takes the narrative into her own hands, providing terse but pointed commentary on Lulu's adventures. And Lulu is a remarkably well-drawn character. She has all the virtues and shortcomings that a woman of her background and station would have, and her five-year progress, as she passes the landmark age of 40, is portrayed with special delicacy. Again, however, the risks are those of restraint….
Aficionados of analysis will no doubt be able to place Lulu, but I sometimes felt as if I were moving in a contextual vacuum. Both Lulu and Dawn have spent nearly half their lives engaged with analysis, yet the social, political and moral implications of this consuming devotion are left for the reader to draw. It may be that, having chosen a potentially sensational subject, Mrs. Rossner resolved to render it serious by treating it in the most austerely documentary manner she could devise. She has succeeded in that; indeed, the major complaint I have against "August" is that it's too austere, not sensational enough. In the world of today's novels, however, that complaint turns into another compliment.
In the last few years, psychoanalysis has again become a hot topic, for both novelists and journalists. Now, though, the excitement no longer comes from the discovery that dreams have meaning or that therapy can yield insights. Psychoanalysis has been solidly established in this country for two generations; now the excitement comes from recognizing its far-reaching effects on our lives and questioning the directions in which it has led us. "August" is testimony to this new interest and a valuable contribution to it. I know of no other account, imagined or factual, that gives such a vivid picture of the analytic experience, on both sides of its intense, troubled, ambiguous relationship. (p. 19)
Walter Kendrick, "The Analyst and Her Analysand," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1983 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 24, 1983, pp. 1, 19.
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Throughout August, Rossner conveys the seriousness and excitement of psychoanalysis. Doctor and patient participate in a great cultural experiment, anatomizing the myths that shape consciousness and behavior. Disappointingly, when Lulu and Dawn are not thinking interesting psychoanalytic thoughts, their thoughts aren't very interesting. Rossner has imagined engrossing inner lives for her characters, but she hasn't matched them with equally sympathetic or compelling outer lives.
Love affairs take up a good deal of space in both women's lives…. These relationships are presented as heightened experience, but they come off just the opposite. Rossner doesn't show her characters feeling life more deeply while engaged with men; rather, she treats romance and mating as if they were ineluctably powerful experiences for women, givens she didn't have to authenticate.
Lulu and Dawn are curious about how they function but not about how society works, and they seldom mention events outside their immediate relationships. Do they read newspapers? Describing her actions and thoughts, Dawn sometimes appears solipsistic, an element of personality which is noted by neither doctor nor patient and which the reader must therefore assume Rossner doesn't see.
In terms of how they view themselves, Lulu and Dawn could as easily be '50s women as '80s women. (Sascha, alone, with her hippy-capitalist style, is markedly a creature of the moment.) Lulu doesn't talk or think about the meaning of work in her life. Although it clearly saves her from feeling bereft, and in work, as in no other quarter of her life, her knowledge and tact build to something satisfying and whole, we don't know whether work has attained its prominence by choice or by process of elimination. And we don't know what marriage means to Dawn. We don't know what her art means either. She struggles in her analysis to gain a self, but we don't see how attaining a self changes her attitudes and plans. For a woman, August unwittingly shows, psychoanalysis without feminism can be preparation for a role, not a life.
August is limited by its characters' (and author's) insularity, but the power of the analysis is never diminished. It is a moving, distinguished achievement, full of delight and surprise. Lulu fits her patient like a glass slipper, providing the young woman with a chance to gain her life. And the analyst, too, is rewarded beyond calculation.
Laurie Stone, "Shrink Rap" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1983), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVIII, No. 36, September 6, 1983, p. 34.
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The modern heroines of Judith Rossner's recent fiction, Teresa in Looking for Mr. Goodbar and Dianne and Nadine in Attachments, were confronted with destructiveness, their own as well as the world's; Teresa was killed by a casual pickup, while Dianne and Nadine pressurized their husbands (who were Siamese twins) into being surgically separated, and then left them. Her new novel [August], without exactly brimming with optimism, has a new emphasis: on repairing damage, and living with scars.
August, traditionally, is the month when New York therapists take their holidays, leaving patients to cope with their interior lives as best they can. Dr Lulu Shinefeld is a successful, hardworking analyst, who deserves a break from the intellectual and emotional demands of the job; but her new patient, a young woman named Dawn Henley, has a terror of being deserted even for a month. For Dawn, acceptance is provisional and rejection definitive; every August the people who have allowed her to depend on them disappear, and the progress made since September slips away.
With Lulu, however, Dawn is able to overcome setbacks and consolidate her knowledge of herself. The analysis occupies the even-numbered chapters, Lulu's private life the odd-numbered ones, but inevitably the two subjects overlap….
Lulu's concern with the elaboration of meaning, the discovery of significance in the trivial, is so close to a novelist's purposes that the point of view in the analysis chapters is virtually hers. Consequently there are moments of awkwardness when Dr Lulu becomes the narrative's subject, while the camera dollies back on squeaky wheels to include her in the frame. All that is left over from Dr Lulu for the narrative voice is a sort of distant sharpness which comes close to being clumsy: "Lulu Kagan Shinefeld had grown up on West End Avenue in Manhattan in one of those crust-stable middle-class households that make it possible to argue for or against the notion that the sum of one's neuroses is equal to the square of the neuroses of the previous generation."
This represents a real decline from the wry wit of so much of the book; August describes a world in which marriages are often open, but only at one end, and in which analysts, thanks to their professional knowledge of human motivation, make advanced mistakes in their own lives, rather than elementary ones.
In due course Dr Lulu, recently divorced from her analyst husband, starts an affair with another analyst, thus further squaring the neuroses; but again the narrative voice loses its flexibility.
The chapters of Dawn's analysis, though, are consistently successful; the traumatic scene [in] which Dr Lulu enables her to recover is both convincing and unexpected. Dr Lulu's feelings, too, which she must control during their sessions, are well brought out: "even if you were too smart to go for the happiness fantasy on your own behalf, that didn't mean you were exempt from wanting some for your patients".
August is about pain and maturity; it also proposes affluence and self-obsession as necessary elements of modern life. But Judith Rossner's skills as a novelist are such that she can post-pone almost indefinitely in her reader's head the thought that these are enviable wounds, scars to be proud of.
Adam Mars-Jones, "Scars to Be Proud Of," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1983; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4206, November 4, 1983, p. 1227.
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